The US diplomat tasked with finding a resolution to parading controversies in Northern Ireland has insisted that politics is the only way.
Former White House special envoy to Northern Ireland Dr Richard Haass said the violence which has erupted on the streets of Belfast over the last five nights is a reminder of the challenges that remain in the region.
Dr Haass, whose appointment as independent chair of planned cross-party talks was made before this month’s unrest, met Stormont’s main political leaders in Belfast today ahead of the start of intensive negotiations in the autumn.
As well as the issue of parades, he will focus on finding agreement on the two other outstanding problems of the peace process – how to deal with the legacy of the Troubles and how to address disputes over flags and symbols.
Referring to the recent rioting linked to a contentious Orange Order parade in North Belfast, the New Yorker stressed that consensus could only be reached through dialogue.
“This has got to be done politically and within the parameters of legitimate political discourse,” he said.
“Disagreements are fine, disagreements are to be expected, but again disagreements are to be dealt with verbally and done within a legitimate and accepted political process.”
Dr Haass added: ``I think it is important the differences in Northern Ireland are dealt with in a non-violent way, you can feel passionately without acting violently. I would hope through discourse, through exchange we can come to a consensus. People are not necessarily going to get everything they want but you rarely, if ever, do in politics.
“I am not daunted by the violence but I recognise it and it’s a challenge and it’s something that has to be discouraged and something we have to work through as quickly and as completely as possible.”
As the diplomat commenced preliminary talks with the politicians at Stormont, the Orange Order said its members would “willingly and actively participate” in his initiative.
Dr Haass said the statement from the Grand Lodge of Ireland was “very good news indeed”.
The latest loyalist riots first flared on Friday night in the Woodvale area of north Belfast when Orangemen were prevented from marching through the nearby republican/nationalist Ardoyne area on their way home from traditional Orange Order Twelfth of July commemorations.
Republicans rioted in Ardoyne last summer when Orangemen were permitted to return past the area.
Police came under attack again for the fifth night in succession last night, with around 35 petrol bombs thrown at officers by loyalists.
The majority of trouble was in east Belfast, with sporadic unrest in other areas, including Newtownabbey in greater Belfast. Six cars and a moped were set alight.
So far more than 60 people have been arrested for public order offences.
No police officers were injured in last night’s clashes but 71 were hurt in the previous four nights of unrest.
Dr Haass said that while he would be talking with politicians it was vital that he also heard the views of other people in society.
“If this is going to work there’s got to be broad buy-in and our goal is to hear and listen to as many views as we can and to do our best to broker or help encourage a consensus that will leave everybody better off,” he said.
Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have asked the diplomat to produce a report by Christmas.
Dr Haass said he was optimistic about making progress despite the tight timetable.
“We have got an ambitious mandate, which is to get this report written before the end of the year, we will do everything possible and I am confident that we can meet that mandate,” he said.
An additional 300 police officers from the UK have been drafted in to Northern Ireland to reinforce efforts to quell the disorder.
The deployment brings to 1,300 the number of mainland UK officers that have been called to the region within the last week to support the under-pressure PSNI.
The first wave of 630 mutual aid officers deployed have now returned home to their constabularies in England, Scotland and Wales. The fresh reinforcements will bring to 600 the number of officers from the UK who remain on duty in Northern Ireland.